Saint John Don Bosco:

"Never read books you aren't sure about . . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?"

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

It's easier to explore war when it is about battles far away in the past. Wars that are uncomfortably close, like WWII, can be much more sobering to face. Which is as it should be. Author John Boyne recognizes this and leads an expedition into the Heart of Darkness that skirts the outer boundaries of the horror of the Holocaust at a level appropriate to the mid-older tween crowd.

Nine-year old Bruno is the son of a prominent Nazi soldier who becomes the commandant for the camp of Auschwitz. Through Bruno's eyes: "The Fury" sends his family to "Out-with," where Bruno spies people in striped pajamas behind a fence and cannot comprehend why they are separated and what their life is like. Even as he befriends a boy name Shmuel, who talks to him through the fence, Bruno is strikingly innocent, almost to the point of disbelief. Unless, of course, you recognize the remarkable capacity for human beings to blind themselves to evil right in front of them.

More than his innocence, Bruno is a narrator of innate virtues: he tries to be honest with himself, not to judge others by their appearance, is polite. He is the way we all like to see ourselves: essentially good. But while he can excuse himself since he is a child, for the rest of us, our virtue often takes a backseat to our complacency. Evil often creeps in on soft feet and under disguise, and when it becomes noisier and pokes its head out, our instinct is to ignore it and hope it will go away. Which Boyne's novel points out by contrasting Bruno's ignorance to the reality of his time and place. Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not meant to make the Holocaust a distant battle but everyman's battle today as well.

In keeping with a post-modern audience, the book finds no answer to evil, it presents the narrative which poses the questions.

Most people find the ending, when Bruno slips under the fence, joins Shmuel, and sees the concentration camp face-to-face unto death, the key part of the book. But I found the key far before the climax, when Bruno first arrived at "Out-With." He describes it as the loneliest place on earth. Hell is not hell because of earthly death or a dearth of material things. Hell is the starkest loneliness because it is without God. And the answer to evil is not virtue, it is not even the fight against it. The only answer to evil is God. And that's either good enough, or not. It's an answer that might make you fight; it might make you virtuous, but the point is, it is not you. It's God.

Not that the book says this, but as you can see, it gets you thinking, as it intends.

The serious nature of the topic is the only safety warning I found significant, other than a good teaching moment I found early in the book. Bruno refers to 3 of his friends in Berlin and fondly remembers their playing together trying to "create chaos." I would challenge the vision that the goal of boys playing is to create chaos. Thanks to the fall, I'm sure they are tempted to create chaos. But I'd challenge them to the goal of taming chaos, beginning with their own soul and extending to the world. Seems in fitting with the theme of the novel, too.



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